Universities left waiting as Budget further delays Augar response

Changes around student loan terms in England had been expected, but spending review only says announcement in ‘coming weeks’

October 27, 2021
Major delays
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English universities and students have been left waiting yet again on the direction that funding in the sector will take after the Westminster government’s Budget and spending review pushed announcements on the sector to “the coming weeks”.

It had been hoped that a long-awaited response to the 2019 Augar review of post-18 education – which called for a cut in undergraduate tuition fees and changes to student loan terms – would be made alongside the spending review.

But even some elements of the response that were thought to have been close to agreement, such as lowering the loan repayment threshold and creating a minimum entry bar for loan eligibility, were missing from today’s announcements by the Treasury.

Documents published after the Budget speech by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, which itself made no mention of higher education teaching funding, said only that the government would “set out further details of the Higher Education settlement alongside the response to the Augar report, which will be published in the coming weeks”.

The omission is the latest in a string of delays to the Augar response; the government gave an interim response in January this year that promised that a “final conclusion” to the review would be “set out” at the spending review.

That there continues to be no sign of firm policy proposals – not even on student loan-related announcements – is likely to fuel further speculation that the Treasury, the Department for Education and No 10 are still yet to come to agreement.

Over the summer, there had been various reports that the different branches of government were at loggerheads over whether to prioritise savings on the student loan book or a rebalancing of further and higher education. A change of education secretary in September, when Nadhim Zahawi took over from Gavin Williamson, might have further complicated the picture.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that although there had been detail in the Budget on research funding, the “higher education sector was hoping for more details on the government’s response to the Augar review, which reported two and a half years ago”.

“We still don’t know what, if anything, will happen to student loans or student numbers or tuition fees. This is surprising because, given that major changes can take a couple of years to introduce, we will soon approach the point where it is not feasible to roll out really big new changes smoothly before the next election,” he said.

Steve West, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said “sustainable funding was of course vital for universities as they look to maximise their role in both levelling-up and expanding pioneering research”.

“We look forward to continuing to engage with the government on funding for post-18 education, working to ensure that anyone with the potential to succeed at university has the opportunity to do so while ensuring that the country has the supply of highly skilled people it needs,” he said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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